Daniel Ricciardo was back on a Formula 1 podium for the first time in two years in Germany last weekend, and it was the first time since Renault’s return to the sport in 2016 that it was there too.
The Aussie forgot to do his trademark shoey but it’s not a surprise they were a bit forgetful about what to do when they were up there given how long it had been.
But it wasn’t a surprise to see Ricciardo and Renault finally back up there this season, with Sky Sports’ Martin Brundle commenting in his column it was something “he’s been threatening to do for a while now”.
Ricciardo is currently fourth in the Driver Standings – which is probably the best he could wish for this season with Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas and Max Verstappen so far ahead – and has five consecutive top-six finishes now.
They wrote: “It is safe to say Daniel Ricciardo’s F1 2020 top-three finish had been coming. Nobody has been fourth more times than the Australian (3) this year and, in truth, only the two drivers who finished this race ahead of him can really claim to have been in better form.
“Ricciardo finished his last season with Red Bull sixth in the championship. He is now fourth with Renault. A class act.”
The BBC’s Jolyon Palmer, who raced for Renault between 2016 and 2017, was particularly glowing of Ricciardo and the direction he and Renault have been going in this season in his weekly F1 column.
The Australian was predicted to have a tight battle with his young teammate Esteban Ocon this season, but it has been extremely one-sided so far, with Ricciardo leading the way 10-1 in qualifying.
“As for Ricciardo, he has been brilliant in 2020 and is making Ocon look quite average right now on his return to a full-time drive,” he wrote.
“Ocon is a young driver of good potential – and showed it alongside Sergio Perez at Force India in 2017 and 2018 – but he simply isn’t stacking up well against Ricciardo, which is a mark of how consistently well the Australian is performing this season.
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“It’s not to say Ocon’s been particularly poor. He has had moments of promise, and more reliability issues than Ricciardo, and he’s new to the team after a season on the sidelines.
“But I’m sure even Renault will be surprised at how Ricciardo is outperforming their new signing. He’s is in the best form he’s been in for a while, and this year he can actually finish in a higher championship position than he managed in his final two seasons at Red Bull.”
Ricciardo now leads both McLaren drivers in the standings and Renault is just the two point behind McLaren with six races remaining of the season, and the questions are starting to be asked of whether the 31-year-old jumped ship too early.
Fernando Alonso is coming in to replace him but it seems like Ricciardo and Renault have finally just discovered their groove together.
“As for Renault, there will be frustrations, I’m sure, that Ricciardo is leaving at the end of the season,” Palmer added.
“Right now, his performances are justifying the money Renault spent on him – more than $50m (USD) over two years. But the plan was for him to lead them into the future, and he’s bailing on the project before they get the chance to complete it.”
Ricciardo himself called the decision “bittersweet” before the race, and although he reiterated after the podium that it’s always better to leave on a high than on a low, because it means you’re performing well, some doubts must have crept into his head on the plane back from Germany.
“Will Ricciardo be regretting his decision to leave Renault for McLaren? I don’t think he’s that way inclined. He left Red Bull and went to Renault, after all,” F1’s managing director Ross Brawn said. “His character is such that he sits down and carefully weighs up his situation and then makes a decision and sticks to it.
“Like all of us, he may have off moments where he has sat and thought about it, but I think he will commit to the new team in a massive way.”
Just this week, the straight-shooting Australian gave an exclusive interview to foxsports.com.au, where amongst other things the McLaren driver scored himself a brutal 5 out of 10 for his on-track performances.
But the differences between success and failure can be minuscule in F1 driving as the knockabout West Australian knows full well.
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It’s why the 31-year-old, who had a relatively successful return to form last weekend in France at the Circuit Paul Ricard after finishing sixth, says if he had his time over again, he might not have pursued Formula One racing, pointing to his disqualification after finishing second on his home track in 2014.
“That’s one thing with our sport … as much as I love it and I’ve obviously made a career out of it, if I could do it all again, I don’t know if I would pick this sport, because there’s so many other variables and so much out of your control,” Ricciardo told the Pardon My Take Podcast.
“You could perform perfectly and something might end it for you. But I think then that makes the highs so high.
“When it all does work and gel together and you win or get a podium, it’s huge.”
Ricciardo also revealed he did not have any regrets from his controversial move to McLaren, where he has yet to experience the same success he had at Red Bull and to a lesser extent Renault.
“The Red Bull-Renault thing … at the time, a lot of people couldn’t really understand it, and fair enough, because I was going from a second-best, third-best team at the time to the fourth or fifth-best team, so I was downgrading if you want to call it that from a performance point of view,” he said.
“But I felt like at Red Bull I kind of want to say I had reached my limit. I’d been with the team so long, I had known everyone so well, I was like, ‘I’m not sure I’m going to put anymore effort into this if I keep going’. It doesn’t really sound right but basically I was worried I’d get complacent, just seeing the same people everyday.
“So I wanted a new challenge for myself and I also felt like Renault was on the come-up, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to jump ship and bring it to the top.”
Palmer says Ricciardo ended up having a tougher race than his teammate because of the pit stop strategy which saw him being held up by cars in front while Norris was able to race in clean air early in his second stint. He ended up finishing 10 seconds clear of Ricciardo after the Aussie let him through near the end because the British driver was running on fresher, quicker tyres.
“This was a race where Ricciardo was closer to his best again,” Palmer wrote in his column.
“He seemed to have confidence in the car, and we were getting the old Ricciardo radio messages indicating he was right up for the fight.
“Ironically, because he was the first McLaren in the opening stint, he ended up having arguably the tougher race, doing more overtaking early on as Norris followed him past Fernando Alonso, and Leclerc pitted before Norris had to overtake him.
“Ricciardo’s charge also prompted his own early stop as he undercut Pierre Gasly, forcing him into a longer, more perilous final stint. But he managed it to perfection, with his most complete drive for McLaren thus far.”
Norris has finished ahead of Ricciardo in six of the seven races this year with the Aussie only besting his teammate at the Spanish Grand Prix.
He never wants to come off as ungrateful or, worse yet, like he’s making excuses.
Sheepishly, he agrees that parts of the 2021 season have been the toughest of his career, from a driving perspective.
Asked how he would rate his first six races at McLaren, he says: “Oh, don’t make me do that … I mean, from a results point of view, I wouldn’t give myself too much of a flattering grade.”
Laughing, he adds: “But I don’t want to say what (number) I think because then it just makes me sound pretty sh*t! But there’s definitely room to improve.”
Eventually, he settles on a five out of 10, although it’s a painful admission that comes with a caveat.
“On a more positive off-track grade, I would definitely give myself a nine,” he says.
“The results aren’t through a lack of trying and I certainly feel like I’ve put in the work … So although my score is a five out of 10 now, I’m uber confident that increases at the year goes on.
“So panic not, my friends.”
Ricciardo has never panicked, and always thrived when the odds have been against him.
In 2014, he outdrove a four-time world champion, Sebastian Vettel, in his debut season at Red Bull, where the German had been settled for five years.
In 2020, he claimed two podiums at Renault, a team which hadn’t had a driver in F1’s top three in more than nine years.
Even making it to F1 at all, without significant financial backing, is the realisation of a dream that, for most, is fanciful at best.
Ricciardo is now in his 11th season, which he’s spending at a fifth F1 team, on which his lifelong dream of winning a world title hinges.
Dauntingly, McLaren hasn’t won a Grand Prix since 2012, and hasn’t stabled a world champion since Lewis Hamilton in 2008.
Realistically, becoming an F1 world champion is a long shot.
But the adversity Ricciardo overcomes in 2021 could, ultimately, elevate him to the peak of his powers, and lay the ground work for a watershed moment in Australian motorsport.
Australia has not had a Formula One world champion since 1980 – a streak Ricciardo still hasn’t given up hope of breaking, even with the odds more heavily stacked against him than ever.
“I’m aware now that to win five titles is becoming slimmer and slimmer,” he admits. “But still, to win one, I think there’s time on my side.
“McLaren is certainly where my ambition is and I definitely want to see this one through, hopefully with a lot of success.”
‘LIKE KICKING WITH MY LEFT’
At 31 years old, and just months into a fresh three-year deal, time still favours Ricciardo, who has often been rated as one of the category’s best drivers.
Sleeping F1 giant, McLaren, is still just stepping out of hibernation, although a massive rules shake-up in 2022 could shuffle the deck.
And if the team plays its cards right, seven-time Grand Prix winner Ricciardo — and teammate Lando Norris — could be in the hunt for wins once more.
First and foremost, however, Ricciardo must overcome a significant hurdle.
Feeling comfortable in new surrounds has come relatively quickly, he says, but feeling comfortable in the cockpit has not.
Ricciardo has made no secret that his new drive has its list of quirks that don’t gel with his driving style.
Just how difficult the transition is, however, becomes clearer as he explains it’s similar to a top footballer learning to become dominant with their weaker foot.
“I’m basically trying to get good at kicking a ball with my left foot,” he says.
“So my instinct is obviously (to) kick a ball with my right foot, and that’s easy, but to really try and perfect this car, I’m trying now to learn to kick with my left. That’s maybe a good analogy.”
Ricciardo isn’t naive — he fully expected the McLaren to be different to what he experienced at previous teams.
Just not this different, or temperamental.
“The team’s had some really good results the last few years, so once you can kind of balance it on this nice knife’s edge, the car can certainly be quick,” Ricciardo says.
“I think that’s probably another way of putting it as well; it does have a bit of a sweet spot, but it’s just quite small and obviously if you’re outside of it then you’re not getting the performance.”
He adds that changes to front tyres and narrowing of the car floor at the rear have likely contributed to the unfamiliarity, too, as Norris has made similar observations.
‘DIFFERENT NEEDS TO BECOME NORMAL’
After seven races, Ricciardo has outdriven Norris just once, although there were signs in France last weekend that the he’s closing the gap.
A long road still lies ahead, but Ricciardo understands it’s a punishment worth enduring — a two-footed footballer is a dangerous weapon, after all.
“Adapting to the Renault, I was still able to adapt with a similar driving style or something that was more natural for me,” he says “The McLaren is a little more detailed than that, I guess.
“But I look at it as a positive as well. In the long run, if I can, let’s say, learn how to drive with a different style, then I have more tools in my arsenal.”
He adds: “I’ve got to a point now where I’m also not trying to fill my head with it. It’s different, sure, but it can’t be different forever.
“At some point this is it, this is the car I’ve got and different needs to become normal and get on with it.”
STAYING AT MCLAREN… AND THE LANDO ‘BROMANCE’ THAT ISN’T
Ricciardo is sick of moving around.
He stunned Red Bull when he quit in 2018, seeking a fresh start as the team’s obsession with Max Verstappen grew to scary new levels.
Less than two years later, he had seen all he needed to of Renault, and was on the move once more.
Three teams in four seasons certainly hasn’t made Ricciardo’s McLaren transition any easier.
Asked if that means he’s now looking to stay put long-term, he laughs again, saying: “For sure, for sure.
“Changing teams and that, although I’ve done a bit of it the last few years it’s certainly an inconvenience and you’re obviously forced to relearn things. But I think the beauty of that as well is you have a chance to grow and to learn more.
“So it’s more challenging, but I think in the long run it will pay off and that’s why I certainly want to stay here and make it work, build up this speed and this understanding over the course of years until when it eventually feels perfect.”
Ricciardo has been thrilled with his new team from the little time he’s spent there, praising its work ethic, attention to detail and open-mindedness.
He’s also pleased that he’s on the same page with teammate Norris at the development table, even if they aren’t anywhere else.
The F1 world became infatuated with the pair’s apparent ‘bromance’ since Norris made his debut in 2019, but Ricciardo revealed the strength of their bond outside of the garage has been largely overstated.
“You can’t deny there is a generation gap,” Ricciardo says. “There’s even some phrases and some things I’ll say that he just doesn’t get, so you have to pick your conversations at times.
“Is it the bromance he had with Carlos (Sainz)? It isn’t yet. But I honestly just put that down to generation as well.”
He adds: “In all that being said, there’s certainly no friction or anything like that. I’d say we’re getting down to business for now and putting that first and foremost. Not trolling each other or anything too much.”
How their working relationship progresses will have a major influence on McLaren’s overall development towards a championship-contending car.
Ricciardo wants to push the team in one direction, saying he wants to become a better driver of the current car, but also develop one that leans more on his strengths.
As of last week, Ricciardo said Norris was looking for similar improvements, which bodes well for the McLaren garage.
“It’s a two-way process now, but the team’s been great. I want to give them more absolutely, but I think they also understand this is a journey, Ricciardo says.
“I signed a three-year contract with them so would love to have fireworks already, but we know that we’ve got time on our side to get it right and go through the process properly.”
‘I’LL CLICK MY FINGERS, AND IT’LL HAPPEN’
Meanwhile, Ricciardo and his former Renault boss Cyril Abiteboul haven’t been to the tattoo parlour yet.
The day will come soon; Abiteboul owes his former star some ink having made a bet he effectively wanted to lose – and did last year when Ricciardo stood on the podium in Germany.
“Now it’s just a matter of time,” an excited Ricciardo says.
“I’m trying to do it in London because I know some tattoo artists there, so we’re just trying to work some dates when we’re both together in London.
“Then I’ll click my fingers, and it’ll happen.”
Ricciardo wishes he could enter a fight for podiums, wins, or even see his family again in the same way; with a click of his fingers.
In a way, he likes that he can’t.
“If I am making these sacrifices and being away from family and friends, and missing events — even like families getting older, grandparents and all that, life goes on,” he says.
“So if I am over here missing important things, which I do value a lot, then I’m like, ‘Alright, well I better make this right and make this work.